• Opinion
  • October 17, 2018
  • 5 minutes
  • 1

Layoffs in the public sector have these very different consequences

Opinion: Government must do more to protect public sector employees from downturns

This piece was written by Jaclyn Piatak, Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina. 


Unemployment in the United States has hit a 50 year low. But while those without jobs have fallen to 3.7% of the population, the lowest level since December 1969, the public sector has yet to fully rebound from the Great Recession — some 10 years later.

The recession of December 2007 to June 2009 was the largest and longest the US has faced since the 1980s, with unemployment rates peaking at 10%. While that unemployment rate has since dropped, the government is still struggling to return to pre-recession worker levels.

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Breaking this out by levels of government, we can see that state and local levels have been the hardest hit, with local government employment still lagging behind pre-recession levels by some 162,000 jobs. No wonder many US cities have never recovered.

Public sector layoffs have distinct social and political consequences. For-profit sector downsizing is a matter of economics and profitability in a market economy, whereas government downsizing often is a matter of reducing waste and increasing efficiency.

Cutback management actions in government can be more about politics that economics, with serious consequences for both public servants and the communities they serve. For example, federal government employment last peaked January 2017, the same month President Trump instituted a government-wide hiring freeze. While the hiring freeze was later lifted by the Office of Management and Budget, President Trump has since made retirement cuts and called for a pay freeze.

Downsizing is more disheartening in public service, where job security has historically been a key benefit

Downsizing is more disheartening in public service, where job security has historically been a key benefit and frequent motivator to join the sector. Businesses don’t have the same protections civil servants do, so downsizing is difficult but justifiable when dealing with market competition. This makes layoff decisions policy decisions and seem more personal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, today morale among federal government employees is at an all-time low.

Government jobs recover less quickly than private sector jobs, as illustrated above, and the loss of government employees further affects the government’s ability to cope with future crises. Yet citizens continue to expect and rely upon the same level of government services, if not more.

If (or rather, when) another recession hits, how will local governments be able to effectively serve their communities when they’re still down thousands of employees since the Great Recession, while populations and citizen needs are on the rise? Layoffs already increase response time of overburdened firefighters and class sizes of under-resourced teachers, let alone the ability of countries to respond to future crises.

Lastly, layoffs inhibit diversity efforts. Many know the phrase: “Last in, first out,” but think about what that means for recent diversity efforts to correct past discrimination, to make government more representative of the communities served and to ensure diversity of ideas to improve performance.

During the Recession, African Americans and women in state government were more likely to lose their jobs

Government is often a leader in diversity efforts to reflect the general population. For example, President Obama issued Executive Order 13583 coordinating a government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion. But during the Great Recession, African Americans and women in state government were more likely to lose their jobs. Losing positions and diverse hires makes it difficult to retain any progress made to better reflect the public that government employees serve and foster an inclusive workforce.

Government leaders should strive to protect their public employees from economic downturns, just as scholars have long warned organisations to protect their technical core to be able to cope with future crises. — Jaclyn Piatak

(Picture credit: Flickr/Design Innovation Centre)

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